The latest wave of Palestinian violence against Israel’s citizens has been a chilling reminder that incitement and extremism remain the major obstacle to peace. Young Palestinian men, and sometimes women, fed a diet of incitement built on lies—most notably the lie that Israel is seeking to undermine the status quo of the Temple Mount—have set out to murder Israeli men, women, and children. A 13-year-old boy riding his bike in Jerusalem, for instance. A 76-year-old man—a lifelong peace activist—murdered in an attack on a bus. An 80-year-old woman knifed in Rishon LeZion. Extremism has also raised its ugly head deep within Israeli society, too.
If there was any doubt before the latest wave of violence, one thing is now clear—the conflict cannot be “managed.” It is impossible to calibrate an inherently unstable equilibrium, and it is cynical that both sides in this conflict have attempted to do this for such a long period of time.
When I was speaking to friends on a recent trip to Israel, the sense of trauma seemed twofold. There’s the trauma of knowing that you, your children, your elderly parents could be murdered anytime, anyplace by a youngster with a kitchen knife. The wave of violence has been a massive shock, even for an embattled nation that knows all too well the effects of terror. But this time, for my friends, outward-facing, secular Israelis, the violence seems to have triggered an additional trauma—a questioning of their own legitimacy; a profound anxiety that as a society they are on edge, that they are not how they had always seen themselves.
That soul-searching was exemplified by reactions to the lynching of an Eritrean immigrant, beaten by a mob of Israelis after he had already been mistaken for a terrorist and shot eight times following a terrorist attack at Beer Sheva bus station. It was there too after footage emerged of Rachel Eizenkot, the 80-year-old grandmother stabbed in the back by a Palestinian in Rishon LeZion, lying untreated on the ground. The footage showed people jumping over her as they pursued the attacker. “Look what’s become of us,” her granddaughter said. “It’s terrible to see the clip of my grandmother falling and no one helping her. It says something about our society.” It’s a question I heard asked one way or another throughout my last visit—what has become of us? What is becoming of us? Behind the soul-searching lies a loss of confidence. Inherent in this is a cry for leadership that will not simply seek to manage the status quo but will seek a path toward a future that seems worth living in. Instead, the political headlines in Israel are dominated by surreal statements and actions from those who claim to lead.
A deputy foreign minister dreams of the day, she tells us, when the Israeli flag flies on the Temple Mount. A justice minister fantasizes about making representatives of foreign-funded NGOs wear a special badge in the Knesset. The prime minister’s proposed new spokesman is revealed to have described President Barack Obama as “an anti-Semite” and trolled Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin. There is little confidence right now; rather, a great deal of anger and frustration.
The same can be said for the Diaspora and for the Jewish communities around the world who proudly defend Israel’s legitimacy and celebrate our bond to the Jewish State in our own countries. The challenge for us has been intensifying as the extremists behind BDS—the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement—have pushed their agenda closer toward the mainstream of public life.
The BDS movement wishes to delegitimize and isolate Israel from the community of nations. It depends on a total and willful blindness to the responsibilities of the Palestinians. BDS has an agenda. It is not the creation of a Palestinian State (that is a byproduct) but rather Israel’s destruction as a Jewish state. In order to appeal to the mainstream, however, BDS and its sympathizers push the argument that boycotting Israel will pressure it into making peace with the Palestinians. It is an absurd notion—in part because of the hypocrisy that defines the movement, whose activists never call for boycotts or sanctions against genuinely malignant and far more globally significant international actors, but also because it ignores the fact that to achieve peace the Palestinian people will need to embrace it as well. So far, they have not.
The Palestinian Authority has been unable to deliver, even when presented with authentic offers of a Palestinian state, as in 2000 and 2008. Before the latest wave of violence an opinion poll found that only a minority of Palestinians support a two-state solution. Palestinian leaders have not promoted a positive vision of what such a Palestinian State would look like in practice. Salam Fayyad tried to implement one—the years of relative calm that preceded the current violence are in no small measure down to the nation-building and economic foundations he put in place. But Fayyad was unable to bring his fellow Palestinian leaders, let alone his people, any further along the journey to statehood.
A two-state solution, with a Palestinian state alongside Israel, is still regarded even by many moderate, pragmatic Palestinians as nothing more than a sad attempt to make the best of a bad hand—a historical booby prize. Set against the maximalist positions of Hamas and others, with their pledges to liberate Jerusalem with the blood of martyrs, a begrudging acceptance of a Palestinian state is not exactly a potent rallying cry. Zionism is still regarded, even by those who would be seen as potential peacemakers, as an abomination; the existence of a Jewish state in the region as a bizarre and transient anomaly, like the Crusader kingdoms of the Middle Ages. Until Palestinian leaders are able to articulate a positive vision of a two-state future in which both peoples can enjoy their rightful place under the sun, it is hard to see how or why their people might be sufficiently inspired to commit to peace.
The Palestinian leadership, while succeeding in devising new ways to vilify Israel and Israelis, has failed to lead its own people towards a better future. Those who truly wish to see a Palestinian state alongside Israel, rather than instead of it, should seek to encourage the Palestinians down a more constructive path. BDS does nothing of the sort. It rewards radicalism among the Palestinians and fosters radicalization among its Muslim and secular left-wing supporters in the West. As the lack of momentum in the peace process increases the appeal of BDS to the mainstream, BDS poses a threat not only to Israel, but to Jewish communal life around the world and to our right to identify as Jews who are inextricably and proudly connected to the State of Israel.
What Israel does or does not do is clearly an important factor, though far from the only one, in bringing peace with the Palestinians; the Palestinians share the responsibility for a failure that hurts both peoples. However, what Israel does or does not do also has an enormous impact on our ability within Jewish communities to fight its corner, make the case for Israel and win the struggle against BDS. In that context, Israel has simply not done enough, and the consequences of that failure are enormous, and growing.
A few months ago I was surprised to read of an initiative in the United States by leading Jewish philanthropists to tackle BDS. My surprise was twofold. Firstly, I wondered, what had kept them? Why had it taken them so long to appreciate the corrosive effects of BDS? I had been warning of its rise for years, but been dismissed as naïve by many in Israel and the United States who believed that they knew better, and who gladly characterized BDS as a “fringe” movement. But better late than never and in fairness it was only earlier this year, with increasing incidents of disinvestment from Europe and the inflammatory statements of Orange’s CEO, that the Israeli government itself finally woke up to the extent of the challenge.
Secondly, I was surprised that for many of those involved in the initiative, as well as officials in the Israeli government, the answer to BDS appears to be investing in strategies that tell the same story that we have all been telling for years, only more loudly and aggressively. That story is not without merit. Israel is indeed an embattled liberal democracy. BDS indeed brings us further away from peace. Those who drive the BDS movement include no shortage of extremists, anti-Semites and hypocrites. But despite those inherent truths, and despite the inadequacies and lack of vision of the Palestinian leadership, our arguments are failing to gain traction while BDS is gaining momentum. The reason is simple. While Zionists see Israel through the prism of the “Start-Up Nation,” the developing world, Europe and increasingly elements within the United States—justifiably, hypocritically, it doesn’t matter—view Israel through the sole prism of “the occupying nation.”
No attempt was made in this latest initiative to ask how our story must change. Rather, their question is merely to ask how the same story could be retold, even louder. No questions are asked about whether some actions of the Israeli government, regarding its settlement policy for example, or demolitions in the West Bank, are tying the hands of Israel’s friends overseas in our struggle against BDS. No serious reflection is undertaken on whether there are serious steps Israel could take on the ground that might bolster efforts to seek peace, or to improve the lives of ordinary Palestinians.
The failure to ask these questions results in courses of action that may attract even greater financial resources but are incapable of succeeding—like appointing a right-wing Evangelical Christian Zionist to lead the fight against BDS in the left-liberal heartland of American university campuses. Like branding his group the “Campus Maccabees,” a name more suited to a university’s Jewish soccer team than to groups who need to make a contemporary, liberal-democratic, secular case for Israel to the policy elites of the future. It’s a strategy of putting our fingers deeper into our own ears while shouting louder.
It is likely that violence that is being perpetrated on the streets of Israel by Palestinians will create a temptation for Jewish communities and Israel advocates to push our fingers even deeper into our ears, and shout even louder, while feeling even more unjustifiably scorned and besieged. Look, we will be tempted to say, surely now, as Palestinian teenagers murder Israeli men, women, and children with meat cleavers and kitchen knives, encouraged by a culture of incitement and hatred, the world will see our point. Israel is an island of democracy in a sea of barbarism that all western democracies must and will support, now that Paris and Jerusalem are beset by the very same terrorist scourge. But unless Israel is advancing a two state vision and direction, Palestinian turmoil will only serve to increase the relevance and momentum of the BDS movement in the West: The more dire things are on the ground, the more reasonable extreme statements and solutions begin to seem.
Our fight against extremists, delegitimizers and boycotters will only gain momentum if it is accompanied by a new story that tells credibly of a renewed Israeli vision of how to move from the current stagnation to a viable two-state solution supported by concrete Israeli actions on the ground. This vision should be rooted in a set of core government policies that encompass, among other things,
1) The cessation of new settlement activity.
2) Arrangements within Israel that create clear conditions for voluntary resettlement now within the green-line of those currently living in settlements in the West Bank which are not within the major blocs likely to remain part of Israel under a peace deal.
3) The mobilization by both Israel and the International Community of programs to rebuild and renew infrastructure in both Gaza and the West Bank that will provide water, electricity and sewerage solutions which are both fair and affordable.
4) Constructive and continuous engagement by Israeli ministers with their Palestinian counterparts on specific programs that will incrementally facilitate free movement, investment, and entrepreneurship.
5) The recognition that today’s potential alliances within the greater region, as it grapples with the problems of an aggressive Iran and the march of ISIS, are a mechanism to find common cause in the resolution of the Palestinian conflict, which is essential to Israel’s security.
That’s not to say that such measures will magically bring about peace. But the recent violence demonstrates that inaction and stagnation carry their own risks, that the conflict can explode at any moment and that deferring the search for solutions until an unspecified point in the future will merely store up greater dangers, when the rest of the world will be even less sympathetic to Israel than it is now, and Diaspora Jewry will be even less capable of making Israel’s case to a hostile audience. As Israel continues to face the hostility of its enemies, many on the Israeli right seem determined to alienate even its friends. A renewed two-state vision would surely be a more productive approach.
Today we once again stare into the abyss. We may crawl out and sit for another few years panting on its edge before we slide down into it again, or we could just fall in, and then all will be lost. Israel must construct a new story about what the country stands for and where it is going. It must do so whether or not the Palestinian leadership is ready to move toward action and partnership and away from violence. The collective future of the Jewish people remains in our hands, not theirs—but only if we make it so.
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